Some Treasure Valley businesses count on holidays for survival

Some local businesses are in the middle of make-or-break season.

adutton@idahostatesman.comDecember 10, 2013 

It happens every year. Moe Stark wakes up Thanksgiving Day and gets ready to spend a few hours at the HoneyBaked Ham franchise store he owns with his wife, Karen. He’ll do it again a month later on Christmas Day. The deli and cafe — on Fairview Avenue in Boise just west of Curtis Road — is actually closed for those major holidays. But the Starks always have 30 or 40 customers who call in a panic those days, having forgotten to pick up a spiral-cut ham they ordered for their families’ holiday dinners.

Those hams may be just as important to the Starks as they are to the customers. That’s because HoneyBaked Ham and other local businesses make a large share of their income during the holidays. If things go right, this month will carry them through much of next year.

“It’s a whole different animal” to be in business during the holidays, Karen Stark says.

Holiday sales made up 19.2 percent of total annual sales in 2012, according to the National Retail Federation, citing U.S. Census Bureau data. For some businesses, a whole year rides on the weeks between Halloween and New Year’s Eve.

“Christmas is like our crop to a farmer,” says Curtis Nokleby, who with his wife owns Lee’s Candies in Boise’s Vista Village Shopping Center. “If I didn’t have Christmas, I wouldn’t be in business.”

The all-handmade-candy business Nokleby’s father, Lee Nokleby, opened in 1947 has seven part-time employees. Those workers ramp up to full time during the holidays. About 60 percent of the store’s business is from the Christmas shopping season, with Valentine’s Day and Easter delivering “a shot in the arm,” Nokleby says. The store averages around 60 customers a day in the off-season; in December, it can hit 400-plus customers.

Lee’s isn’t the only candy-maker with a holiday rush. Idaho Candy Co. ships pallets of toffee, Spud Bars and other candies from its Downtown Boise factory each year, starting the week before Halloween. Owner Dave Wagers says the company adds 12 full-time temps to keep up with holiday orders.

This is the 22nd holiday season for the Starks. They opened a Heavenly Ham store in 1991, rebranding it to HoneyBaked Ham in 2009 after the two national franchise brands merged.

Their HoneyBaked Ham store makes about 50 percent of its sales in November and December each year, the Starks say. They say their franchise agreement doesn’t allow them to disclose sales.

They usually have 11 full-time and part-time employees. During the holidays, they hire five or six more to keep up with the flood of orders, ranging in size from a single “mini ham” that feeds a small family to an eight-pound-ham feast with sides. Some people order customized Christmas hams for business gifts.

The holiday rush includes loyal customers. But the Starks say they’ve noticed more young adults placing orders, hoping to spend more time relaxing than laboring over a stove.

Saving time and relieving holiday pressure is how Idaho Holiday Lighting, a home-based business, makes its money, too.

Owner Mike McFadden says he’s selling customers “the ability to spend a Saturday with their family, rather than putting on Christmas lights, yelling and cursing ... in the cold, up on a roof.”

He has built a reliable customer base in the decade since he began stringing up lights for mostly residential, dual-income-family customers. McFadden started this season with about 110 customers and expects to end with 175.

That’s where he earns about 80 percent of his income — he also runs an electronics-buyback website — for the year.

Working 10 hours a day, seven days a week, between October and the middle of January brings in $40,000 to $50,000. The company charges by the job. Prices range from $50 to several thousand dollars, he says.

McFadden says this year is noticeably different from the past several holiday seasons. The recession chipped away at consumer spending on luxuries like pre-cooked meals and elaborate holiday-light displays.

“After 2008, things fell off,” Moe Stark says. “[Sales] had grown every year through 2008, then leveled off.”

Before the housing crash, for example, real estate agents liked to buy thank-you hams for their clients. This year, those buyers are showing up again, Karen Stark says.

Says McFadden: “People’s purse strings, for lack of a better term, are a lot looser than they have been in the past few years.”

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Audrey Dutton: 377-6448, Twitter: @IDS_Audrey

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